Fabiola Santiago

How do we know if our beaches are poop-free and safe for swimming? We don’t | Opinion

How do we know if our South Florida beaches are toxin-free and safe for swimming?

We don’t in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

By the time the red flags go up by the lifeguard stand, ocean waters may have been contaminated with fecal matter for days.

That’s because Miami-Dade and Broward report to residents a positive test result only after a second test confirms high levels of bacteria. That’s unacceptable given the times.

The retesting can take up to four days. During that time, people with autoimmune disorders, plus children and the elderly could be exposed to harmful bacteria that puts them at risk of illness, skin rashes, and even death for the frail.

People enjoy a sunny windy day with a red flag (no swimming) advisory in the North Beach area as Hurricane Dorian’s latest track shows the storm has shifted east and north, increasing the possibility that the storm would not make landfall in the state of Florida on Saturday August 31, 2019. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

It’s time to revisit reporting practices — and notify the public as soon as health officials know that waters are contaminated with fecal matter, aka poop. The same goes for other toxins. Do we have to wait for the collection of dead fish to appear when the stench is telling you the water couldn’t possibly be safe?

With the pumping of standing water that accompanies excessive rain, sea-level rise and king tides — and the constant sewer pipe breakages of our aging infrastructure — the misery of our beaches is no longer a temporary condition.

And you can’t point the finger just at Key Biscayne alone any longer.

Earlier this year in February, a pump station malfunction led to a massive release of wastewater in Northeast Miami-Dade.

After miserable summer months of on-and-off closed swaths of Miami Beach, the Miami-Dade Department of Health last week posted swimming advisories for five Miami-Dade beaches for having high levels of the bacteria enterococci.

That’s too much poop in the water.

The reason: King tides fed the bacteria on land — the sewage overflow, the dog poop you don’t pick up like you should, the pesticides that give your lawn that pretty green — to ocean waters.

The beaches people were asked to avoid: in or near Key Biscayne (Crandon North, Virginia Key, Key Biscayne Beach Club, Cape Florida) — and Surfside at 93rd Street. (The warnings were lifted Tuesday.)

But although people didn’t know it, they were getting the warning four days late.

If this had happened in Palm Beach County, you would’ve known right away. Palm Beach reports test results the moment they’re available.

But by the time those advisories were issued in Miami-Dade, people would have been swimming, fishing or boating in those waters for days.

According to the Florida Healthy Beaches Program (given the decline statewide, it should be Florida Unhealthy Beaches Program), “enterococci are enteric bacteria that normally inhabit the intestinal tract of humans and animals. The presence of enteric bacteria can be an indication of fecal pollution, which may come from storm water runoff, pets and wildlife, and human sewage. If they are present in high concentrations in recreational waters and are ingested while swimming or enter the skin through a cut or sore, they may cause human disease, infections or rashes.”

Three-year-old Aaliyah Casola was hospitalized after catching two bacterial infections at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne, her mom says. Courtesy of Anais Monteagudo

That’s hardly a risk to keep from the public — no matter how it might adversely affect tourism.

Surprisingly for a state that wants to overpower home rule at every opportunity, the Florida Department of Health gives counties discretion over when to report water contamination to the public.

Counties like Miami-Dade and Broward that wait for the results of a second test to report unsafe conditions end up reporting less contamination, reports the South Florida Sun Sentinel. In Broward, advisories rarely go out, even when Palm Beach and Miami-Dade have issued several, the newspaper found.

Sometimes they may get a lower reading of acceptable levels of poop on the second try — and get away with not reporting — but, meanwhile, unsuspecting people have been out there frolicking in it.

There’s no excuse for the lax reporting.

Miami-Dade and Broward need to stop putting people’s health at risk. They need to report contamination to the public the moment health officials know it exists.

If they don’t, the state has good reason to step in and force them. State-mandated testing alone doesn’t cut it anymore.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”